Most left-wingers become politically engaged on account of learning something of the world and having the curiosity to further expand and develop this knowledge. It is surprising therefore how little emphasis the organised left places on developing the skills we require to change the world we seek to know. Everyone involved in the left should embrace training to learn skills in order to effectively engage in trying to change society, while we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace listening to those who have expertise in particular areas either.
The left has a very limited conception of the skills and expertise it takes to be effective. Being an ‘activist’ commonly means you set-up stalls, you organise meetings and demonstrations, you speak at these meetings and you might phone people to motivate them to do the same stuff too (this isn’t exactly true of trade-union activists, but we’ll leave discussion of that to one side for now). If you are a ‘theorist’ you read Marxist literature, read Marxist websites and write for said websites about issues relevant to said literature. You can be an activist and theorist on the left while hardly engaging with anyone outside the left. This is another way in which the left becomes self-referential, the leaders being the people that are best at doing these things, but these things themselves being extremely limited and representing only a small part of the skill-set we all should be developing.
I’ve been actively involved in the left for seven years and there are some essential skills that I am only just finding out about. Take, for example, canvassing and data collection. The SNP have built up a sophisticated database system which allows any activist at a click of a button to know which way people in their community vote, what issues they are concerned about, how likely they are to get out and vote and what leaflets and information they should be targeted with to convince them of the SNP’s case. When I used to sell socialist newspapers I got people’s address and email on a petition before selling them the paper, but I didn’t care about the data – that was just a tactic to sell the paper. We didn’t store the data anywhere, we didn’t put it into a spreadsheet, never mind a sophisticated data technology system. How could a left party plausibly compete if it doesn’t know who or where its supporters are?
Another example is media strategy. One of the last things I used to think about when organising protests, stunts or events was a media strategy. Sometimes we didn’t even bother to put a press release out. It was all about (a) pressurising the Vice-Chancellor or boss the action was against (b) building cohesion and confidence amongst activists and (c) getting the support of the people who saw our action. When we didn’t get results we’d blame the media for not taking it seriously when we done nothing to encourage them to do so. In an age when professional journalism is in decline and the journalists that remain operate under time-pressure, there are opportunities to create stories for them if you think about how to appeal to their readers. Thinking through a media strategy also focuses minds – rather than thinking about what messages work for the activists on the protest, we think about what messages are actually going to resonate with the public. There’s a whole skill-set required to do media strategy effectively. If we can’t use the media to our advantage, how do we expect to win any arguments beyond our own ranks?
All training should be carefully co-ordinated strategically: a community engagement strategy requires a specific set of skills that need to be trained systematically, the same for an internal education strategy and the same for a national political strategy.
It’s about professionalism: in any discipline there are specific skills that need to be learned and strategies followed to have a chance of success. Those skills should be taught by people who have experience in them and have learnt the right ways to do it and the wrongs ways to do it. The left too easily conflates being anti-establishment with being anti-professional – the reality is that if we actually want to convince people of anti-establishment ideas we need to be more professional than other political organisations.
Training is the only way to effectively undermine the ‘male, pale and stale’ problem of prominent leftists being predominantly white men. If there is a culture of improving the skills of everyone, members of oppressed groups have much more chance of genuinely taking leadership roles rather than being the object merely of tokenistic efforts.
There’s an incredible amount of arrogance on the left about training and expertise – there’s so much we don’t know and we spend so little time trying to learn it. A party must be committed to teaching core skills and ideas to its members if it’s ever got a hope of achieving anything serious. Of course it is not necessary for everybody to know everything – people should be able to get involved in the left with minimal knowledge or skills and shouldn’t feel pressured to do more than their circumstances allow for. But there should be a culture of endeavouring to learn knowledge and skills as best we can, from the most experienced member to the newest.
As the neoliberalisation of education advances apace, we have to create our own spaces for learning about how to change society that are informed by sound ideas and expertise. A left party should be a school of radical thinkers and activists.